Elektra Natchios is a force of pure destruction. She is noir, straight up.
And while you could call her a black and white character – her world revolves around the binary relationship of life and death – it’s much more apt to describe her as a red lady. Because red is the colour of passion, of anger, and most importantly blood. It is life, and it’s the life you leave or the life you take.
Elektra is the torn result of two worlds viciously colliding. She is beauty and violence, she is a protector and an assassin, she is her mother and her father. She is the walking embodiment of polar opposites, but worse than that, Elektra is constantly choosing the one side on which she’ll die.
An 11 issue run with the character across 2014-2015 was illustrated by Mike del Mundo [with some assists from Alex Sanchez] and written by W. Haden Blackman. This run is easily one of the best runs from Marvel in that year, and it’s a phenomenal study of Elektra as a living and breathing downward spiral, and why she chooses to be this way.
The first issue opens with a split splash of Elektra’s face mirrored and her captions discuss the fact she looks like her mother but very much acts like her father. This split, this sensation of being torn apart, is a strong undercurrent given to Elektra in this run as there are multiple times where we see Elektra mirrored, or we have visions of her future. She is very much a woman in constant inner turmoil, and she always feels the need to choose, because if you don’t then you put the choice in the hands of the world where anything can happen.
Better to have control of your noir story than to be dashed upon the rocks of an organically occurring romcom cut short by precise tragedy.
So we have a woman shattered by her past. Elektra becomes the beautiful absence of her mother and the ruthless focus of her father. She is split, and her life hinges on the dichotomy of life’s absurd at all times. She fell in love with Matt Murdock only to have it fall apart, and upon their reunion by the time she realises she’s still in love, she’s murdered by Bullseye and only manages to get back to Matt to die in his arms.
Though she’ll be back. Because life becomes death, and in her world that can become life once more. Her fractured narrative, halved and twisted as it always is even means permanent things can become malleable. It should feel joyful but in her hands appears more cruel than anything else.
From the moment Frank Miller created Elektra in DAREDEVIL #168, she’s been problematic. She’s been a villain, a love interest, an antihero, a flashback, a return. But she’s always been lethal and the recap page even chooses to describe her with three words – NINJA. WARRIOR. ASSASSIN. – with the final word in red for emphasis. She’s skilled, she’s a fighter, and she’s fatal. She deals in death.
This connection to death, and blood, and red, is beautifully shown in the first issue, right after the split splash, we see Elektra dancing. She is tiptoed poetry, she’s amazing, and around her is coiled a red ribbon. It’s beautiful right until we turn into the next double page splash and the ribbon has become flowing rivers of blood rushing out of the people she is killing. Because she dances with death, and she makes it look beautiful. But it’s still death.
And as Elektra raises her bloody sai above her head, the red ribbon lashes out to form what you can only see as a love heart. She enjoys what she does.
It makes sense because historically, Elektra has been shown to be very good at her job. You look back at how Miller introduced her and it wasn’t long before she very efficiently and without emotion slides a sai into the torso of an informant talking to Ben Urich in a cinema. She kills, for money, and she knows it makes her hollow inside but that’s how she wants it. The murder of her father gutted her, and the slap in the face that inevitably comes from loving someone else and losing them teaches her not to try and fill that hole. So she cleanses herself with fire.
Upon this salted ground, Mike del Mundo and W. Haden Blackman declare their run an exploration of what it might take to force change upon this immovable object. And in doing so they wrest all agency back into her hands moving forward. The opening sequence of blood ballet discusses Elektra as seeing herself as “only reflections that belong to someone else.” She is only important in ways that are pivotal to others. And while she dreams of other occupations, other things to be, even when she is truly herself she knows she is still “someone’s assassin.” It’s still relational to others and over the course of this run that centrepoint changes in one very crucial way.
It all begins with a small shift, a nanometre of change to the usual scheduled programming. Elektra sees the Matchmaker – a hook up for killer contracts – and she is given a gig where the money is high but the job profile is different. Whereas everyone else will be hunting a retired killer known as Cape Crow, Elektra will be attempting to bring him in. This isn’t an execution, it’s a stay from one. It’s a rescue mission, of sorts. It’s something new and Elektra takes the job.
As she hunts down the whereabouts of Cape Crow, Elektra manages to form a team of sorts [if you want to align comparisons to the Scoobies, you can – Ms Natchios will kill you for doing it, though]. She stumbles across Kento Roe, a young gentleman and son of Cape Crow who is just looking to protect his old man. Though he lied about the funds to make this actually happen. And yet Elektra doesn’t kill him, she continues to look for Cape Crow and you can see she’s softened already.
But to say it’s a softening is a misnomer because it belies weakness, it might cause us to consider Elektra as less when this is most certainly not the case. Calculating is the word you were looking for.
It’s fitting that initially placed in direct opposition to Elektra is Bloody Lips – an Australian bastard who wears a lion’s head and eats the memories and abilities of others. He’s ghastly and laser focused and his one goal becomes to eat of Elektra, to feed of her life and her energy. Their dance is one that can only end in one manner and the longer the music builds, the greater the anticipation sits on all our tongues. But first, we need to know how Elektra will taste, we have to analyse and wonder and hope. And so her flavour is shown to us.
Amidst the chaos and the hunt, Elektra sets off to the underwater city and as she sinks like a biological depth charge she considers the water around her and thinks that “In the silence of the deep, there was just one voice–my own.” Because solitude would mean no consideration of others. It would mean she would have control.
Before Elektra can find herself alone, she faces her ultimate ‘other’ – her mother. In an altercation with Bloody Lips, Elektra stabs him in the head as he chokes her underwater. Both wake in a purgatory fugue state and Elektra’s mother instantly points out the folly of Elektra’s ways and deeds. It’s a brutal showdown until Elektra takes control of it all. Because her mother wants her to see her life as wasted, as boorish, as having no opportunity to make positive change. But all Elektra sees in the faces of those she has slain are the faces of killers and monsters. She only sees vindication in what she’s done and as she considers the orphans she has left behind, she suddenly sees how her own life plays into this wheel of depravity and change. The daughters of these monsters were better off left alone in a world without their parental problems rather than condemned to a lifetime to repeat the sins of their parents. Elektra finally understands how she was made, this origin of blood and fire, was most certainly for the best.
This is the first step towards Elektra owning her past and therefore her future. She’s not a past victim, she’s an emancipated warrior with any opportunity available to her.
This ability to harness her past, to own her suffering, to flip from being attacked to attacker personifies in the counter-attack she pours into Bloody Lips by actually slicing her hand and allowing him to feast upon her blood. Her essence proves too strong for him and seemingly drives him mad. Elektra is far too strong a woman for him to handle. So then she kicks him off a snowy cliff. It’s most assuredly a long way down for him.
As the case then further progresses, Kento, Matchmaker, and Elektra protect Cape Crow, they fend off would be assailants, and the day could be described as being saved. It’s not an easy path. The group goes on the run and Elektra protects them by inflicting the fight and the pain outwards onto their attackers. Our eponymous hero as protector comes to the fore and a showdown looms with the Assassin’s Guild and so she cuts her troupe loose. A choice she says is “Because I do not want to bury any more of my friends.” And yet you can’t help but wonder if maybe Elektra still wants to play all of this solo. If maybe she isn’t certain how she’ll turn out, and if protector isn’t a role she can keep up forever.
As the Hand, and a somewhat rejuvenated Bullseye, all converge on Elektra as she tracks the leader of the Assassin’s Guild, it almost feels like Elektra is being put back into her box. Alone, out for blood, and in the mist with the thieves of life once more. She must face her past within Bullseye, the man who once murdered her. She must assess all that she is and all that it’s for and come to the realisation that it’s a zero sum game.
She then steps up with a clear head and plays her role perfectly, dispatching many Hand ninja, taking Bullseye down once more, and then the final twist comes and it’s the final and definitive lesson for our recidivistic assassin.
Bullseye is blessed with a re-up for life as the Hand brought him back. As such, he bests Elektra and completely obliterates her skull. She wants to fight on, it’s what her DNA does, but she is down. The lust to dive back into the fray is stronger than the flesh and she is held in limbo and yet she still manages, but it’s not to kill. The leader of the Assassin’s Guild is a small girl. Bullseye attacks her as well – because of course he does – and Elektra cannot bare to see someone else murdered by Bullseye. She doesn’t want anyone else pushed into their future six feet under by another psychopath.
In the end, Elektra fights for good. She always has.
It’s just always felt so very very bad. And dark. And bloody.
She slingshots out of her injuries to stage one last attack and while it doesn’t kill Bullseye, it damages him enough to send him limping away. He exits with a flick and attempts to replay the last time he killed her with a playing card slice across the throat. Elektra deflects the flat missile but it instead finds a new trajectory right across the little girl’s throat. Bullseye doesn’t even need to say it.
Stephen King once wrote [in the Dark Tower series] that ‘ka is a wheel’ – meaning that life and destiny go around and around. And so do we. Maybe we learn a few lessons and we’re better prepared next time we come across the same hurdle. Hopefully.
Elektra finds herself in a remarkably similar position to her first murder and she’s faced with two choices moving forward. She follows Bullseye to finish the job, and no doubt leaves the girl to bleed out, or she stays to aid the girl, allowing her sharpshooting nemesis to escape. Elektra is a killer and yet she chooses to protect. Furthermore, she chooses to actively save.
Albeit with the caveat that she is given the Assassin’s Guild. She saves so that she may be given the opportunity to destroy.
And this is Elektra’s final lesson and change on the ka wheel. She has become a hero, for the moment, she’s saved a life, and she finds herself chatting with Maria Hill about her heroic deed. But she’s not going to stick around the celebrate a life when there is walking death out on the streets everywhere. Elektra launches into the water, off to begin her new life. A life that’s filled with agency and purpose now.
The coda of this run has Crossbones and Sidewinder summoned to a Guild meeting whereupon they find Elektra instead. And she’s not here to convene business, she’s here to bury the Guild. Her final line is “I’m here to destroy it.” And it’s nice to see her referring to herself, no longer just a reflection of someone else or their thing to be owned, and she’s using an active verb. She has her own ideas, her own mission, and the goddamn wherewithal to do whatever she must.
Elektra has spent decades being someone else’s something. After this insanely well structured and delivered run from del Mundo/Blackman, she is now left as a lady of independent means, who knows what she wants, how to get it, and will get it herself.
Though it’s hard not to see Elektra is merely choosing the ‘right’ kind of killing, and that sort of activity will still leave you hollow, as we know she’s always wanted. She has accepted her noir ending, and is in fact using it for her own gain and the betterment of the world. Her downfall is our updraught, and that might just be the definition of bittersweet.